What do you do when you have a bunch of beheaded martyr’s corpses that just would have been sitting around anyway? You build them into a church.
In 1480, Ottoman troops attacked and conquered the fine seaside city of Ortranto. The conquerors took eight hundred of the inhabitants out to a hill and told them to convert to Islam. They refused, and were beheaded. The hill became known as the Hill of Martyrs, and the remains of the pious citizens who wouldn’t give up their Catholic faith were, uh, built into a display behind the altar of a church. We guess that’s just how they did things back then.
We’re all fine with honoring the people that died for their religion this way. But really, what kind of usable church would this be? You’d be sitting there, listening to the priest give his homily and announce this week’s parish schedule, and all you would be doing is glancing over at the piles upon piles of skeletons, hoping they don’t come back to life and go all Jason and the Argonauts on you.
On a whole, Catholic countries like Italy are good at dominating the ‘creepy religion’ market, but if there’s one region that definitely gives them a run for their money, it’s Japan. As any fan of J-horror knows, the Japanese are really good at making things eerie. Take, for example, the ‘monster mummies’ found in various Buddhist temples in Japan:
These ‘mummified demons’ are almost certainly all fakes, usually being made from the mummified remains of several other creatures. Still, it doesn’t stop them being creepy as all hell.
You might ask what exactly the corpses of demons are doing inside religious temples in Japan. Isn’t that a bit like a church displaying Satan’s pitchfork or his jacket or something? Well, demons (oni) in Japanese religion aren’t always that evil, just mischievous. The oni above, a kappa, could certainly cause trouble, often killing horses and kidnapping children. But he could also be befriended and even tricked into serving you for all eternity. Maybe that’s what happened to the poor mummified dude above.
These demon corpses can be found all over Japan, and even in some foreign museums. But this guy, a ‘three-faced demon’ who we think is the creepiest…
…can be found at Zengyouji Temple, in Kanazawa. Next time you’re in the area, ask for directions to the mummified-three-faced-demon temple. Hopefully there’s only one of them in town, but this being Japan and all, you can’t be sure.
These mummies are also found in Tibet, but the real creepiness is once again found in Japan, which as a nation just seems to be good at this kind of thing.
What makes Japan’s mummies extra creepy is that they weren’t just mummified; they actually mummified themselves. First they started themselves on a near-starvation diet, presumably so they’d get used to looking like a mummy. Then they slowly poisoned themselves by drinking a special type of tea. Finally they were put inside of a box or room, where they rang a bell every day to prove they were still alive. If they didn’t ring the bell, their tomb was sealed.
Not everyone who did this actually became a mummy, but the ones who did were venerated and displayed. Yamagata in Japan is home to many of these mummies. You can see the guy in the picture above at Nangakuji temple in Yamagata, which for whatever reason is something of an epicenter for mummified monks.
In the countryside of the Czech Republic, you’ll find the town of Kutna Hora and its famed Sedlec Ossuary. Why would you want to do that, you ask? Because where else can you see the bodies of fifty thousand people on display?
Before you get too concerned, these people weren’t the victims of some epic massacre, like the ones in Ortranto. What happened was that in the 13th century, the monastery’s abbot returned from a trip to the Holy Land with a small amount of earth from Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. He mingled this earth with the earth of the abbey’s cemetery. When word got out, people were impressed and soon everybody was dying (heh) to get buried there.
This was a fashionable time to be dead, what with the Black Death and several wars going on, and soon the cemetery couldn’t hold all the bodies anymore. So in the fifteenth century, an ossuary was built. Corpses were exhumed and their bones piled in the chapel.
Until now this place was creepy, but not that creepy. In the nineteenth century a local man was employed to organize the huge heaps of bones. This guy was apparently the Rob Zombie of his day, because he took to the task with gusto. He made chandeliers, a coat of arms, and even weird skull-and-crossbones versions of string lights:
The dude even signed his name to his work in human bones.
One has to wonder what this guy’s personal life was like after he told people what he did for a living.
There’s a similar bone church, in Capuchin, Italy, and another one in Portugal. But neither one of them boasts more than about 8000 corpses, so it’s pretty clear who’s the rip-off.
Like Buddhists, Catholics also have a tradition of holy non-decay. Like the Buddhists, though, they can’t just let their holy people not decay in peace; they have to show them to the whole world.
The Catholic model for avoiding bodily corruption is a lot easier than the Buddhist one. You simply live a saintly life of good works or heroic deeds, and then die in whatever way you see fit. Then, if you’re lucky, maybe God will make you incorrupt, meaning divine intervention… with the decomposition process. And then you can be displayed in a church like the head of St. Catherine of Siena:
Some of the incorrupt saints look healthier, if you’re one of the 2% of humanity that doesn’t think wax models are creepy:
Sure, on the surface this type of thing might not seem all that disturbing. But if you were going to choose a holy place to get trapped inside in the middle of the night, which one would you choose? The one filled with harmless old bones or the one with the fresh-looking corpse that you can imagine moving its head slightly the second you look away from it?
The preserved corpse of St. Zita, above, can be found in Lucca, Italy. Similar incorrupt saints can be found all over Europe, but Italy seems to be the winner of the “most semi-rotten corpse” contest. St. Catherine’s head can be found in Rome, and many other incorrupt bodies are scattered all over the country. You can stop off for a creepy Italian corpse-viewing tour on your way back from Japan.